Although I have plenty of elitist moments, I truly do think American audiences have more of a taste for darker, more biting material than studio executives routinely give them credit for. This is why I always find it depressing when something gets watered down for the sake of marketability. A borderline tragic example is what happened with The Carol Burnett Show‘s wildly popular “The Family” skits about the Harper clan from small town America, particularly the tortured (and torturing) relationship between unhappy housewife and frustrated aspiring actress Eunice (played by Carol Burnett) and her domineering mother Thelma (Vicki Lawrence). Like much great comedy the skits had humor mixed with just a hint of tragedy, like this skit where a game of “Sorry!” hilariously exposes the epic resentments just bubbling inside Eunice’s psyche. And again, like many popular comedic characters, Eunice is not terribly sympathetic, but that’s exactly what makes Eunice understandable. Above all, speaking as someone who grew up in rural America, the skits were deftly authentic. I doubt I’m the only one who felt that way; the characters of Eunice and Thelma became so popular, in fact, that they showed up in character on The Gong Show and Password.
So the sitcom follow-up, Mama’s Family, was inevitable. It debuted in 1983, but only lasted one season. However, a somewhat revamped version would be brought back for syndication in 1986, this time lasting four years. There’s much to be said about how Mama’s Family was a declawed successor to “The Family”, but perhaps the most revealing change was that the heavily-implied-to-be-gay son and successful writer Philip (originally played by Malcolm McDowell and then Ken Berry) was rewritten to be a straight good ol’ boy, Vinton. At least it’s to Ken Berry’s credit that he was able to pull off both personas well. However, the change closest to the spirit of the original skits was that Thelma Harper was transformed from a belittling, hostile matriarch into yet another tough-elderly-person-with-a-heart-of-gold. Because Carol Burnett declined to be a regular, Eunice, except for a few cameos, became an off-screen presence, who in the show’s syndicated run was just known for dumping her juvenile delinquent son Bubba off on Thelma.
Now the show wasn’t terrible, if only mostly because Vicki Lawrence’s portrayal of even a more cliched and less bitter and manipulative Mama Harper was still so memorable. But it did not make its mark on the landscape like, say, Golden Girls (which happened to snatch up Betty White and Rue McCallahan, who were involved with the pre-sydnication Mama’s Family). I have no doubt that it is because it simply lost most of that satirical and unflinching perspective on working-class, rural family life that made the original skits such a hit.
Of course, I don’t blame the makers for any of this. As I’ve said many times many ways, the Reagan era was not a good period to look for sitcoms with an edge. All things considered, shows like Small Wonder and Full House still made Mama’s Family on its better days look like an uncompromising commentary on American mores (well, maybe not the episode where the Harper clan ends up in Hawaii…). Still, it’s hard not to mourn for what might have been, especially when you’ve watched the now forgotten spin-off TV movie, Eunice, which managed to take the darker undercurrents behind “The Family” and bring them even closer to the surface.
At the least, the TV movie’s plot is definitely something that wouldn’t have made it in Mama’s Family. The story follows the life of Eunice, who dreams of becoming an actress. Her brother Philip also has grand ambitions of becoming a writer. Philip seizes a chance to crash with a friend in Queens right after graduating from college, despite the protests of his mother Thelma who was instead counting on him being satisfied with a reporter job at the local paper. Eunice stays behind, hoping to making her start in the local community theater. Instead she marries a hardware store clerk, Ed Higgins (Harvey Korman), who wasn’t her first choice for a boyfriend, much less husband.
In New York, Philip becomes a successful novelist and screenwriter, eventually relocating to Los Angeles and enjoying national fame. However, the more successful he becomes, the more alienated he is from his uneducated family, who can’t even bring themselves to really comprehend much less discuss his literary accomplishments (or him being gay, for that matter, although it’s never quite spelled out; this was 1982, after all!). Meanwhile Eunice resigns herself to a life of envy and desperation, especially once Ed leaves her for a younger woman, her son Bubba runs away and disappears for good except for one painful phone call to Eunice, and her other son Billy is arrested for some unnamed crime and incarcerated. Eunice takes a job as a cashier at a dime store, but her real career is living with and taking care of Thelma. It’s even implied that Eunice has become an alcoholic, or at least is well on her way to becoming one (which was one of the darker if easily overlooked elements to “The Family”).
The day of her mother’s funeral, Eunice gets into a fight with her uptight, richly-married sister Ellen (Betty White), which causes Eunice to break down in grief. After Ellen leaves, she tries to also lash out at Philip, but the normally softspoken Philip has a breakdown of his own, and finally screams at Eunice that no one has ever stopped her from trying to be an actress but herself. In words that any creative who feels held back by the people in their life should take to heart: “And if you really want to be an actress, take a chance! Stick your neck out! Get off your butt and do it!” But in the end will Eunice finally break away from her own self-loathing and her self-imposed obligations and try to live the life she’s always wanted?
This is all pretty heavy stuff for characters that started out as part of a comedy skit. Indeed, even by today’s standards, you’d be hard pressed to find outside literature a story that suggests that maybe, just maybe, for some people fulfillment can’t be found in family life and in compromising hard on their ambitions. Nor does the movie, unlike Mama’s Family, offer any nice, pat, sitcom-friendly characterizations. Eunice is indeed selfish and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, but her struggles and frustrations still ring all too true. Thelma Harper like her later sitcom incarnation truly loves her family, and if her husband’s brief appearance in the movie and the dialogue about him are any indication was for all intents and purposes a single mother. However, her idea of “maternal support” includes none too passively aggressively slapping down any desire or ambition she deems unrealistic or which will take her children away from her sight, from her son’s decision to move away from their hometown to her daughter just wanting to try to date an athletic and academically successful classmate. Even Philip, while easily the most conventionally likeable character, is suggested to have not tried too hard to bridge the widening gap between him and his family created by his education and success.
Really, it’s at a point where Eunice is almost more of a dramatic character study than a comedy, which I imagine probably put off some fans of the skits. The jokes are fewer and the ones that are there are overall more subtle. Rather than the rip-roaring, facial expression-fueled screaming matches between Eunice and Thelma, there’s quieter character gags peppered in the dialogue, like:
Thelma: Anybody want coffee?
Philip: Not me, Mama. Caffeine doesn’t seem to agree with me.
Thelma: Well, good God, what next? I hope you haven’t gotten any other crazy ideas since you were here last.
Even something that looks like it’s just an extended joke—the tragic fate of Eunice’s beloved pet rabbit, Fluffy—ends up pushing Eunice to total devastation over her mother’s death in a disarmingly brilliant bit of acting from Carol Burnett. It’s one of those great moments in TV history where the studio audience is unsure whether or not to laugh.
There are quite a few great subtle character moments too, like Eunice nearly repeating her mother’s harsh words to her when answering a phone call from her prodigal son Bubba. Or Philip’s ever diminishing attempts to communicate with his mother and sister until he finally storms off to visit a (supposed) old boyfriend.
I might be biased in really enjoying this movie and wishing it had more of a place in the cultural memory. For one thing I’ve been a big fan of Carol Burnett for as long as I can remember; for another I perhaps relate a bit too well to Eunice, for reasons I won’t get into (but people who know me will perhaps be able to call me on right away). Still, I do think most people, especially those who have enjoyed the original skits, should head over to YouTube and watch it.
After all, there is at least a little Eunice Harper Higgins in all of us, especially those of us who are frustrated creatives.